From left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz speak during a news conference in Tel Aviv on Oct. 28, 2023.

From left, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz speak during a news conference in Tel Aviv on Oct. 28, 2023. (Abir Sultan/Pool photo via AP)

JERUSALEM — Six weeks after it defied its allies and attacked Rafah, Israel is close to achieving its goals in the southern Gaza city it says was Hamas’s final stronghold, according to Israeli officials and analysts, raising the possibility that months of major military operations might soon give way to a new, less-intense phase of the conflict.

A shift from the widespread ground and air attacks that have leveled much of the enclave and killed tens of thousands of people, according to Palestinian health officials, would represent a significant milestone in the war. It would offer a possible respite to civilians who have spent months in the line of fire, allow for more humanitarian aid and possibly jolt stalemated diplomatic efforts to reach a cease-fire deal and free Israeli hostages still held by Hamas.

A complete end to the war is not in sight. The Israel Defense Forces said it has destroyed most of Hamas’s 24 battalions and now severely degraded three of the four remaining battalions in Rafah. But lone fighters and small groups are still launching rockets into Israel and targeting troops, even in areas of the Gaza Strip already largely under Israel’s control.

On Saturday, eight Israeli soldiers were killed in Rafah when an explosion hit the armored personnel carrier they were traveling in, the IDF said. Hamas’s armed wing, the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, said the attack was carried out with an antitank missile, calling it a “painful blow” to the Israeli military.

“And we have more,” Qassam Brigades spokesman Abu Obaida said in a statement.

Israel has made clear it intends to keep some troops inside Gaza — or within rapid striking distance just outside the enclave in Israel — indefinitely to keep Hamas in check.

“The guerrilla fighting never ends,” said a senior Israeli military official familiar with ground operations who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss security matters. “Our aim now is to defeat the Rafah brigade, and we are doing that.”

A potential end to the Rafah offensive would cap nearly eight months of large-scale ground operations in Gaza, which followed the weeks of aerial bombardment that opened Israel’s war on Hamas after the group killed about 1,200 Israelis and took about 250 hostages on Oct. 7.

In Gaza, which is home to 2.2. million people, at least 37,372 Palestinians have been killed and 85,452 wounded, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants but says the majority of the casualties are women and children.

What comes next is expected to be a slower-tempo, targeted campaign of raids to keep Hamas from regrouping. Those pop-up, mop-up operations will be carried out by a smaller number of Israeli troops, according to Yossi Kuperwasser, a retired brigadier general and former director general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry.

“They are getting closer and closer to finishing major operations, and then we move to Phase 3,” Kuperwasser said. “Rafah was critical. Things are going to change. But it’s not the end of the war.”

The IDF stormed Rafah on May 6, brushing aside warnings from Washington and other allies that an incursion would have devastating consequences for more than a million people who fled to the area after being displaced by earlier fighting. The war has created a humanitarian crisis that Israel is under international pressure to alleviate.

Washington said it would not support any operation that didn’t sufficiently account for civilian safety. On May 8, President Biden for the first time threatened to withhold offensive weapons shipments to Israel if its forces stormed into Rafah’s most crowded neighborhoods. Of particular concern was a batch of 2,000-pound bombs the administration said Israel previously used in densely populated areas.

Israel dropped leaflets and warned civilians to leave the Rafah area in the days before launching the attack, leading about 1 million people to flee once again, according to the United Nations. Many went to tent camps north and west of the city; others found space on sidewalks and fields already jammed with displaced people.

For many, the past six weeks in Rafah have brought home the full horrors of the war. An Israeli strike that tore through a makeshift encampment on May 26 killed at least 45, the Gaza Health Ministry said. Witnesses described to The Washington Post scenes of families burning inside tents.

The IDF said the incident, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as “a tragic accident,” was under investigation. Weapons experts said the Israeli military used a U.S.-made precision bomb in the strike, after the fragments of an SDB GBU-39, a 250-pound small-diameter munition, were found near the site.

Adli Abu Taha, 33, said artillery shells struck near his house in the first hours of Israel’s attack on May 6. He and his family fled with what they could carry, he said, along roads suddenly packed with displaced people wandering with heavy loads.

Abu Taha’s family eventually found space in a tent camp in nearby Khan Younis, where they learned their home had been destroyed.

“My mother does not stop crying,” he said in a phone interview. “This house represented our life. It was the only thing we had left of the smell of my father.”

Two U.S. officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss thinking within the administration, said they have been monitoring the situation in Rafah closely and hope the operation’s approaching conclusion will open new opportunities for diplomacy.

The officials believe Israel’s confidence in Rafah is what made senior Israelis, including Netanyahu, willing in late May to sign off on proposals for a six-week cease-fire and the exchange of hostages for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, followed by additional negotiations on a permanent cease-fire. That deal stalled after Hamas insisted that Israel provide explicit assurances about ending the war.

Israel unexpectedly announced Sunday that it would begin daily pauses in the Gaza fighting to allow for more humanitarian aid to enter through the Kerem Shalom crossing in southern Israel, about five miles east of central Rafah. Military officials told Israeli media they were within two weeks of wrapping up.

“The IDF is very close to dismantling Hamas’s Rafah battalions,” IDF spokesman Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari said Saturday.

“It’s finished in Rafah now for all practical purposes and they can start discussing what it means for a hostage deal,” Kuperwasser said.

The senior Israeli military official familiar with Rafah operations said the 162nd Division carrying out the assault has made substantial progress on Israel’s three main goals in the area: attacking Hamas’s last battalions; destroying its military infrastructure; and cutting its supply of weapons coming through tunnels from Egypt.

Troops immediately seized the crossing between Rafah and Egypt when the assault began in early May, and soon took control of the entire eight-mile length of the frontier.

Within what is known as the Philadelphi Corridor — the IDF’s code name for the Rafah buffer zone that runs from Israel to the Mediterranean — troops have detected 20 cross-border tunnels and destroyed 14 of them, choking off Hamas’s main source of weapons, according to the senior official. The military estimates that another 20 tunnels remain to be detected.

Before launching operations near the border, the Israelis call their Egyptian counterparts on the other side, giving them a chance to go into shelters, the official said.

“We have full control of the corridor,” the official said. “There has been no smuggling since early May.”

From a new, expanded buffer zone, extending 550 yards north from the border, IDF units have attacked targets in and around Rafah. They have destroyed more than 24 miles of underground infrastructure, the official said, including command posts and rocket workshops. Two of the four Hamas battalions are effectively destroyed, the official said; one other is severely damaged, and the fourth is the focus of coming attacks.

The official said the fighting against Hamas operatives has been more intense in Rafah than in other areas, including Gaza City. Hamas units in the far south had months to prepare and took lessons from IDF tactics employed elsewhere, the official said.

But the Israelis also adapted, targeting raids more precisely and relying less on air bombardment, the official said.

“We learned as well,” the official said. “There is no need to take every building and every street in the city.”

Hard-liners in Israel have pushed back on U.S. calls to be more targeted in Rafah and have criticized the IDF for not employing more force. They are pressing the leadership to mount a bigger assault on the final Hamas positions, even it means destroying more of the city.

“This is not a full-scale attack on Rafah,” said Amir Avivi, a retired general and head of the Israel Defense and Security Forum. “If you don’t want them to escape, you have to surround the city and attack from more than one side.”

Avivi is among those who say Israel cannot claim victory in Rafah or in Gaza until Yehiya Sinwar, the mastermind of the Oct. 7 attack and Hamas’s leader inside the territory, is captured or killed.

“How can you say we destroyed Hamas if we didn’t reach its leadership?” Avivi said.

Several Palestinians in Rafah said they have heard reports that Israel may soon conclude the attacks, but that they were still largely pinned down by the fighting.

“The bombing and targeting are still continuing, and the helicopters are firing intensely and randomly at everything that moves,” said Wissam Ismail, 28, who has been displaced with 10 his relatives three times since Oct. 7. “Wishes are one thing, and the media is one thing, and what is happening on the ground is something completely different.”

Harb reported from London. John Hudson and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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